Progressing through Brahms at Chautauqua

A Complete Brahms Symphony Cycle

The Colorado Music Festival orchestra and music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni present Brahms’ four symphonies at Chautauqua on Thursday July 7 (1 + 2) and Friday July 8.

Experiencing a complete ‘cycle’ offers the audience a sense of a journey shared. It also provides a unique opportunity to hear a body of music afresh, identifying elements, themes, and musical effects you may not have noticed before.


In the view of some, Brahms is highly regarded, but something of a musical end-of-the-road. He is often set in opposition to Richard Wagner, reactionary to revolutionary.

Yet, since Arnold Schönberg’s 1947 article Brahms the Progressive, a whole school of musical criticism has debated whether Brahms should indeed be viewed in this way. Schönberg stated his goal clearly:

It is the purpose of this essay to prove that Brahms, the classicist, the academician, was a great innovator in the realm of musical language, that, in fact, he was a great progressive.

Wagner, twenty years Brahms’ senior, finished his only completed symphony in 1832 at the age of 19, before Brahms was born. Modeled after Beethoven’s 7th symphony, Wagner indicated in a letter that the work was completed in only six weeks.

In constrast, Brahms perceived the weight of symphonic expectations more keenly. Viewed as Beethoven’s heir apparent, he took 21 years to complete his Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68. When it was first performed in 1876, listeners clearly identified echoes of Beethoven’s 5th and 9th symphonies.

The two composers, despite drawing inspiration from and paying homage to the same musical forefather, were viewed as falling on either side of some contrived musical rift. But musical successors such as Mahler and Richard Strauss were brought up aware of both Brahmsian and Wagnerian traditions. Schönberg writes:

Their [Mahler and Strauss] example helped us to realize that there was as much organizational order, if not pedantry in Wagner as there was daring courage, if not even bizarre fantasy in Brahms.

Schönberg holds Brahms to be a great innovator in harmony, comparing another C minor work (the Op. 51 No. 1 String Quartet) with Tristan und Isolde and finding Wagner to be the more conventional (in this context).

At the same time, a listener to the finale of Brahms’ First Symphony might equally be struck by parallels with Wagner: the brass chorale, solemn and serious at first, returning bright and blazing before the end reminds me of Act 3 of Die Meistersinger where the ‘Wach auf’ chorale, sung in honour of Hans Sachs at the start of the final scene, is first heard in the prelude through the spiritual hangover of the previous night’s rioting.

In an instance of musical DNA recombination, Michael Steinberg, writing on Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, notes:

The triumphant C-major Finale is itself a kind of cliché stemming from the Beethoven Fifth and transmitted by way of the Brahms First and…Die Meistersinger

Perhaps not such a musical dead-end after all.


The first performance of the Second Symphony, Op. 73, was delayed. The Vienna Philharmonic was too busy learning Wagner’s Das Rheingold.

The Second, commonly thought the most ‘pastoral’ of the four symphonies, illustrates Schönberg’s point regarding irregularities in Brahms’ music (asymmetry, differing phrase lengths, odd numbers of bars). (Walter Frisch’s points out that from the very first bar, the music is ‘out-of-phase’ with itself.)

As the first movement approaches its first high point, Brahms is busy wrong-footing the listener with a seven bar phrase (starting in bar 52, the first two bars omitted below) that includes a four-note motif excerpted from the theme to produce an off-beat hemiola, with an extra beat appended to land unexpectedly on the forte upbeat to bar 59:

Excerpt of first movement of Brahms Second Symphony

Who but Brahms could have written that?


The Third Symphony continues to illustrate Brahms’ tricks. “Metrical ambiguity arises in the very first appearance of the motto [opening theme],” writes Frisch. “The first movement of the third is cast in 6/4 meter that is also open, through internal recasting as 3/2 (a so-called hemiola).”

Opening Theme of Brahms Third Symphony

(The third movement also contains perhaps Brahms’ ‘greatest hit’, much used in movies and adapted for songs by Frank Sinatra and Serge Gainsbourg, evidence that his melodic gifts were second to none.)


Opening of the final movement of the Fourth Symphony

The last of the symphonies, No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98, links old and new, particularly in the spectacular final movement, written as a series of variations on a passacaglia derived from Bach’s cantata Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150.

Walter Frisch expresses it well:

Anyone who analyzes closely the finale of the Fourth Symphony will, or should, come away with a sense of astonishment at the range of Brahms’s compositional powers. Nowhere in his music are formal, thematic, and harmonic techniques brought into better coordination. Nowhere does it display such congruence on all levels. Nowhere are the principles for which we value this composer most in greater evidence.

Colin Lawson writes that

…succeeding generations have found it difficult effectively to articulate the way in which Brahms works his special magic.

Schönberg and others have tried to do so, but not everyone views Brahms’ techniques as progressive.

Are they? Come along to the Brahms cycle and judge for yourself — it’s a great opportunity.